Last night I moderated attended a transportation panel that brought together highway folks with transit folks in the hopes that they would interact and teach each other a thing or two about how we can advance transit in our community.  The panel included  Alice Bravo (FDOT District 6 Director of Transportation Systems Development), County Commissioner Carlos Gimenez (District 7), Harpal Kapoor (Director of Miami-Dade Transit), and Javier Rodriguez (Director of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority).

My thinking was that there was  some secret that the highway planners knew that could enlighten us transit advocates as to why transit consistently fails in our region, but I was wrong. There is no secret, just institutional malaise, lack of vision, and as one member of the audience described it, a ‘bubble’ mentality.

I was disappointed in myself on my way home because I came armed with a series of tough questions about why we don’t have transit, and how the panelists (as the responsible parties) could do something to change the status quot. But I didn’t ask my questions - I was too busy listening to the spin. Don’t get me wrong, I learned an awful lot about how things work, but it wasn’t because of anything that the panelists said. Their insulated and distant positions on the need and demand for transit was more revealing than any of their answers were. It was as if their opinions of what ‘works’ in Miami, after so many years of experience, had been calcified into facts. ‘This is the way it is in Miami-Dade County’ was the idea touted by some , with Commissioner Gimenez sharing with me in conversation that his apparent cynicism came from years of dealing with inept transit management (an understandable feeling considering his efforts to address the management of the PTP).

I abandoned my questions early on because of the enthusiastic and vocal audience of transit professionals, planners and interested citizens who came up with their own questions for the panel. I was happy to see such an interest in the subject, and thought it was a signal to the members of the panel that they need to get moving on providing creative transit solutions.

Funding dominated the conversation (as it will when discussing transit issues), and I was happy that Javier Betancourt (Miami DDA’s Manager for Urban Planning and Transportation) asked the panel why transit doesn’t get the same funding that highways do. No one could give a simple, straight answer, but I think the answer to this question is the key to solving our mobility problems (and no, I don’t think our highways are the solution).

Ysela Llort, Assistant County Manager in charge of transportation was in the audience, and she answered the question by describing the competitive  and difficult Federal New Starts process for building transit infrastructure. Commissioner Gimenez described the problem as involving the operations and maintenance side of transit once the infrastructure is up and running. (Ysela also made this point.)

In conversation before and after both Commissioner Gimenez and Javier Rodriguez made interesting points about the funding conundrum. Why do roads and highways get funded over transit? Because government doesn’t have to get involved in the operations and maintenance side of the equation-  that is largely the responsibility of the citizenry (you are responsible for maintaining and fueling your car).

Lack of density was also mentioned, but what was not mentioned was lack of demand. I said several times over the evening that we need to get people out of their cars by making driving less convenient, to which the Commissioner and Alice Bravo grimaced. What an un-American thing to force people out of their cars. I disagree. The point of my comment was not that we should make people abandon their cars, but to provide more alternatives. How can we justify spending hundreds of millions of dollars improving flow on the Palmetto - which is within the fiefdom of FDOT :) - while not providing a convenient alternative to people who don’t want to sit in traffic. We wouldn’t have to improve flow if we gave people an easier choice to make.

I heard many promising things as well, most notably from Javier Rodriguez, who really gets the bigger picture. I’ll write more about him and his thoughts tomorrow. All being said, I came away with the hope that we have things to look forward too.

PS. Harpal is awesome. If anyone wants a free EASY Metro card, send me your email.

10 Responses to Transportation, with a side of transit

  1. Mike Lydon says:

    Great report, Tony. Sorry that I could not make it.

    1) Javier Betancourt has his ‘shit’ together when it comes to understanding how great cities do, and should work.

    2) Lack of density is a straw man argument. How sad. Portland, Oregon has WAY less density than Miami.
    Portland: 4,288.38/sq mi (2008)
    Miami: 6,558.2/sq mi (2000)

    As my former boss, Andres Duany, has repeated numerous times, statistically Miami is one of the greatest cities in America. But once one considered the urban pattern and lack of transit we fail miserably.

    Please note that Portland, at 2/3 the density, also has 200x the bike network and 400% more bicycle mode share.

    Again, don’t give me the density bullshit, because it’s not true. It’s about priorities and funding-both local, county, and state. I think the local aspect is changing, but we need to get the county and state on board too.

    3) I will soon post a brilliant response to a recent op-ed in Newsweek about why rail transit is a ‘subsidy’ and why highway infrastructure is an ‘investement.’ It flips most conventional bureaucrats, and pundits, assumptions on its head. Please read carefully, friends.

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  2. Juan Navarro says:

    I just wanted to say that I worked with Mr. Kapoor for many years, especially before he left for D.C. for a while. He is someone very astute when it comes to maintenance and knowledgeable of what can be done.It was awesome working with him when my shop was doing some of the heavy duty collision work for them.

    But it seems that the budget problem is everything, and I hate to be an advocate of “throw money at it” but the staff is there, if they had the funding, you would get the transit.

    I do believe that much of the Highway construction companies in Florida, be it from the Builders to Planters to Sign makers, have a lot of ears bent towards them, and a strong lobby, while many officials just don’t want the headaches of more transit, and like you point out, rather have us maintaining our cars. This is seriously lazy and insipid, I think, and needs the people of the county to make noise to get this going.

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  3. Tony Garcia says:

    I agree Mike, density is not the problem. In my view, it is not just funding, but design. What I kept hearing was that transit’s past failures kept it from advancing, and as we both know it’s a question of making it convenient for people to get to stations. As we have both experienced in other cities (less dense than Miami) if you build it AND design it correctly people will use it.

    Juan: Thanks for your comments. I too found him to be very savvy and sensitive to transit issues. He mentioned more than once his own personal experiences in India with transit. Having someone at the helm of MDT who comes from somewhere totally dependent on mass transit is huge.

    PS. Your site is AWESOME!!! I am a zombie fanatic. Nice to see that I’m not the only one planning for a possible zombie infestation.

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  4. cb says:

    “I said several times over the evening that we need to get people out of their cars by making driving less convenient”

    As a marketer by trade, I too grimaced at this. Not the way to sell the idea even if this is the end result.

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  5. Tony Garcia says:

    Lol, thanks cb. I realize that the language is a bit fascist, but the truth is that we don’t make transit convenient, while dumping all of our money into making highways even more convenient than they already are. It’s time to level the playing field.

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  6. Mike Lydon says:

    A distinction, we make funding highways more convenient and less onerous than funding transit. Can you imagine if each new highway,interchange, or widening project had to apply for federal new starts funding?!!

    I personally think actually using highways, at peak hours, is a whole lot LESS convenient, which is why I don’t own a car. However, living on Miami Beach affords one the opportunity to do so. The story would be different if I chose to live in Kendall.

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  7. Joel says:

    As a resident of East Kendall who works in Palmetto Bay and socializes in Miami Lakes, driving the Palmetto at 5pm is certainly not convenient! If there was a train that traveled the length of the highway (at a comparable cost) I would undoubtedly use it every day. The fact that the Metrorail hasn’t expanded since the 80′s is ridiculous and unacceptable. When are the meetings going to end and “shovels hit the dirt?”

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  8. Anyoneofus says:

    It seems that even if they designed the projects now so that if they ever did get construction funding would be a huge leap.
    MDT can’t even figure out where the east west corridor would be. So maybe funding design locally, now, which would not have the long term budget impact of actually building transit. It would also provide a condensed timeline when it comes to bringing projects to construction as soon as those moneys become available.
    Maybe there is an alternate solution like using MDX to begin building transit along their corridors. It would end up being all park and ride which is less ideal, but potential transit none-the-less.

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  9. Tony Garcia says:

    Joel, didn’t mean to say that it is currently convenient, only that they shouldn’t try to fix it. As an example, Alice Bravo told me that the awkward geometry of the connection to the 836 was a big part in the delays on the Palmetto (not necessarily the volume of traffic). Why continue to throw money at fixing the interchange. I say, give people like you an alternative.

    Any: I agree, a long-term partnership between MDX and MDT is the way to go. Initially, we could use MDX’s ROW, we just need to design it in such a way that it is easy to get to. Then, we could run BRT lines down some of our major East/West (Kendall, Sunset, Miller, Coral Way, 8th Street, Flagler) and North/South (27, 37, 42, 67, Palmetto, 87, 97, 107, 127, etc.) corridors. How would the two agencies divide responsibility? MDX could build infrastructure and MDT could handle operations and management? Thoughts?

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  10. Juan Navarro says:

    Thanks for the kind words Tony, I hope to have Miami pop-out more among the Zombie Apocalypse!

    The MDX/MDT ideas is great, but I think the operations is where the nitpicking would begin.

    Didn’t Penelas try to do that back in the day?

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